As much as we love all of the American musicals that cross the pond to entertain us, there’s a special kind of excitement that comes when a new British creation gets announced. The latest “little” show with “big” aspirations is ‘The Little Big Things’, playing at the @SohoPlace Theatre in London’s West End. Based on the memoir of the same name by artist Henry Fraser, the musical hopes to follow in the footsteps of other British successes like ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’ and ‘Six’, and is already capturing audiences’ hearts with its uplifting true story of triumph over adversity, the importance of family, and the strength of the human spirit.
When an accident on holiday changes his life forever, Henry Fraser (played in dual roles pre- and post-accident by Ed Larkin and Jonny Aimes) initially feels his life is over at 17 before it’s even begun. With his promising future in rugby derailed, Henry learns he’ll never walk again, and faces an expected 17 months of gruelling recovery in hospital. The accident also takes a toll on Henry’s family; mum Fran (Linzi Hateley), dad Andrew (Alasdair Harvey), and Henry’s brothers (Jordan Benjamin, Jamie Chatterton and Cleve September). Feeling lost and angry, Henry resigns himself to an unfulfilled life, but things turn a corner when he begins physio with straight-talking therapist Agnes (Amy Trigg), a feel wheelchair user who shows Henry that there’s no such word as “can’t”, and that life isn’t over, it’s just taking a new direction.
No show is perfect, and critics will find things to pick apart in ‘The Little Big Things’ if they want to; the aerial tricks border on over-sentimentality, the humour can feel “sitcom” at times, the lyrics are quite two-dimensional, and some of the writing is a little clunky, driven by exposition rather than feeling. But in truth, absolutely none of this matters, because ‘The Little Big Things’ does something that makes it magical; it makes the audience feel. It’s an incredibly human piece, and even though most of us will fortunately never go through what Henry went through, the show draws empathy in waves and creates a real connection to the characters. It could absolutely be written more sharply, perhaps with a deeper exploration of the more difficult aspects to Henry’s injury and recovery, but equally the show tells us that’s not who Henry is, a man who clearly wants to focus on the positivity rather than the negative. In doing this, ‘The Little Big Things’ becomes hugely inspiring, heart-warming and uplifting. It will become a show that critics knock down, but audiences embrace and take to their hearts, which is arguably more important.
The score (music by Nick Butcher, lyrics by Butcher and Tom Ling) is largely accessible “theatre pop” which has become the sound of modern musicals, and contains a decent number of memorably hummable earworms. Very reminiscent of ‘Dear Even Hansen’ at times, particularly in its ensemble numbers (which really soar), the music may be unchallenging but it’s also catchy and enjoyable, and tells the story and character emotions well. Joe White’s book is witty and warm, with some real laugh-out-loud moments (mostly given to the sarcastic Agnes played brilliantly by Amy Trigg). It could be argued that most of characters could be written more deeply, particularly Henry’s brothers and love interest Katie (Gracie McGonigal), and we only get to know them in relation to Henry rather than as individuals, but the feeling of family and community is there in abundance.
Director Luke Sheppard (of ‘&Juliet’ fame) has created a brilliantly involving show, played effectively ‘in the round’ (which can be very hit and miss) to really involve the audience in the story and making them feel part of the family. It’s a very stylish production with a great “look” to it, extending the metaphor of returning colour to Henry’s life through art and creating some really fantastic imagery on stage. The video-screen stage enriches this further and is used inventively, and creates some wonderful vistas (particularly from the circle level). Sets (Colin Richmond), Lighting (Howard Hudson) and Video (Luke Halls) combine brilliantly and the technical creatives deserve a real pat of the back for the way this show looks.
Perhaps the most impressive element to this show is its approach to diversity and inclusion, not only in its casting in using some disabled actors, and also incorporating BSL into some of its choreography, which all helps to further reinforce the show’s message of hope and community. There will be audiences to this show who feel seen and represented for the first time, which really is no “little thing”.
Ed Larkin and Jonny Aimes lead the show brilliantly well as the two Henrys, Larkin in particular gives a really touching portrayal and endears the audience to him within moments of opening the show. It’s an incredibly “real” performance, balanced well between humorous and heartbreaking, and Larkin is massively likeable. Aimes does really well too, giving a great energy to the younger Henry and shifting effectively to desolation when the accident hits. Although this is Henry’s story, Amy Trigg very nearly steals the show from under everyone’s nose as the truly unique Agnes, taking no prisoners with her “can do” approach to life and being an absolute standout in the show. Trigg deserves to be a star with her incredible dry comic timing, and hopefully this show will springboard her into becoming a real “go-to” name. It’s also fantastic to see Linzi Hateley back on stage again, who brings her usual warmth and likeability to the role of Fran. It’s a shame the role doesn’t give her a little more to do, but she remains excellent throughout, as does Alasdair Harvey as dad Andrew, trying to appear resilient for the family but inwardly struggling, and Harvey creates some touching moments.
‘The Little Big Things’ looks set to become a new audience favourite, and deservedly so. While not technically perfect (what show is?), and arguably needing a sharper edge and deeper characterisation, the musical does the one thing that great theatre does; it creates genuine emotion in its audience, be it laughter or tears. ‘The Little Big Things’ will live in its audiences’ hearts far longer than anything supposedly more intellectual or analytical, purely because of the feelings it inspires. With huge heart and a world of colour, ‘The Little Big Things’ really does “stay on your mind” as its title song says, and hopefully it will stay around for a long time to come.
‘The Little Big Things’ runs at @SohoPlace Theatre, London, until Saturday 25th November 2023.
Performance runtime 2 hours 30 minutes including interval. https://sohoplace.org/
Reviewer: Rob Bartley
Reviewed: 15th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: